“The top one-tenth of 1% owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90%. The economic game is rigged, and this level of inequality is unsustainable. We need an economy that works for all, not just the powerful.”
A land and people conquered by money
Driving the backroads of Montana, opulence is not a word that comes to mind to describe pastoral scenes of hay fields, barbwire fences, and herds of black Angus cattle grazing in grassy pastures. To the naked eye, this is pure Montana, a traditional rural landscape of family farms, except that it isn’t. Montana is being overrun by the superrich, multimillionaires and billionaires who buy up the land for private fiefdoms, lock out ordinary Montanans, and reduce local citizens to a peasant class working in servitude for these overlords. Europeans long ago rejected feudalism as reprehensible, yet we have allowed this new feudalism—neofeudalism—to arise and rule over our land and people.
Meet the Neighbors
Montana is part-time home to countless multimillionaires, yet it is the billionaires that make the greatest waves—gobbling up large ranches and family farms to build private estates for themselves and their hunting and fishing buddies.
For the most part, these are not entirely bad people. For example, Ted Turner, founder of CNN, owns four ranches in Montana, totaling 153,000 acres. Highly conservation oriented, Turner has protected much of his land with conservation easements to prevent future development. Turner has raised the largest private herd of buffalo in the world and invested countless millions in environmental and conservation efforts. However, he also went against longstanding Montana traditions by posting “No Trespassing” signs to keep the common folk of Montana off his estates. Turner arguably set the precedent and created the model for other billionaires to follow: Come to Montana, buy a private kingdom, then chase the peasant class off the land.
Downstream from Turner’s Snowcrest Ranch, James Cox Kennedy owns a comparatively small 3,200-acre ranch, including eight miles of the Ruby River. Kennedy once served as chairman of the Colorado Division of Wildlife and on the board of Ducks Unlimited. He has donated heavily to conservation projects, mostly benefiting waterfowl and wetlands. But Kennedy has also waged a long-running legal battle against Montana’s Stream Access Law that allows the public to float and fish on state rivers, including the Ruby River that runs through his otherwise private estate. If it were up to Kennedy, he would own the river, and nobody else could use it. He has even run electric fences across the river to zap floaters.
A short distance downstream from Kennedy, the Ruby River merges into the Beaverhead River and shortly thereafter into the Jefferson River, where New York billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James bought up a 38,000-acre estate for his personal recreational fiefdom. Like Turner and Kennedy, Tony James is a conservationist, a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society and several similar organizations, and an advisory board member of the Montana Land Reliance, an organization working to protect land with conservation easements. Like his fellow billionaires, James chose to block traditional public access to private lands, and like Kennedy, James isn’t a big fan of public access even where the public has a legal right.
James somehow felt it necessary to push the public off the only public land remaining along the upper Jefferson River. Through his ranch company, Swift River Investments, James cut a deal with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to give him 80 acres of state land that served as Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. James traded a slightly larger parcel on the nearby Big Hole River, which might have been a reasonable deal if it didn’t eliminate essential public land on the Jefferson.
Losing Beaver Chew was a severe blow to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and a dream shared by many to provide designated campsites along the Lewis and Clark route from here to St. Louis.
Also relatively new to Montana, Dan and Ferris Wilks made their billions in the fracking industry and quickly consolidated numerous ranches and family farms into a giant, 360,000-acre private estate, more than twice the size of Turner’s holdings in Montana, and half the size of the state of Rhode Island. Like other billionaires, the Wilks brothers closed the land to traditional access and have tried to expand their grasp to public lands. The Wilks sought to obtain prime elk habitat in the Durfee Hills through a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management, which was successfully shot down by area hunters. The Wilks’s responded to the defeat by erecting a fence encircling the Durfee Hills and posting No Trespassing signs.
Forrest Mars, Jr., a billionaire of Mars, Inc. that makes M&Ms, Mars, Milky Way, and other candies, bought out local ranches, assembling an 82,000-acre estate called the Diamond Cross ranch that encompasses much of the upper Tongue River near Birney, Montana. Mr. Mars also closed the properties to public access.
Initially, Mars seemed like a great ally to local environmentalists because he joined the fight against he proposed Tongue River Railroad, which would have hauled coal from the proposed Otter Creek Coal Mine. But Forrest Mars Jr. ultimately solved his problem the way billionaires do: He bought a share of the Tongue River Railroad and redesigned the railroad so it wouldn’t cross his land! Fortunately, the coal company eventually filed bankruptcy, and plans for the Tongue River Railroad died with the declining coal market.
Even the notorious Koch brothers have a ranch in Montana. Charles and David Koch, each with a net worth of $45 billion, own the 96,070-acre Beaverhead Ranch southeast of Dillon. They are best known for meddling in politics nationwide with a right-wing Tea Party agenda, including trying to influence elections to Montana’s supreme court.
Rounding out the list of Montana’s most infamous billionaires, Tim Blixseth, a real estate developer, took a bulldozer to the heart of the Madison Range to build the Yellowstone Club, a recreational gated community for billionaires and billionaire wannabes. If you want to have a vacation home next to Bill Gates, it is the place to be, but the gated community bisects habitat where wildlife would otherwise be free to migrate the full length of the Madison Range. Fortunately, Blixseth ultimately went bankrupt and spent fifteen months in jail for contempt of court because he failed to account for millions of dollars he owes to creditors.
It is particularly fitting that Blixseth should lose his freedom and land in jail, because the essential crime committed by him and his fellow billionaires is a fundamental loss of freedom for all Montanans.
“I think what the American people are saying is enough is enough. This country, this great country, belongs to all of us. It cannot continue to be controlled by a handful of billionaires who apparently want it all.”
Before the millionaires and billionaires came, Montana belonged to everyone. Ask anyone middle-aged or older about growing up here, and most will reminisce about rambling the countryside, hiking, fishing, exploring, and crossing fences regardless of property boundaries. Freedom to roam has been a fundamental right for Montanans since before statehood, and landowners were typically pleased to see people engaged in healthy recreation on their farmlands. Unfortunately, as wealthy newcomers moved into the state, they bought land and posted boundaries with “No Trespassing” signs effectively keeping local people out. Miles out in the country, far from the nearest farmhouse, these signs appeared, threatening prosecution against anyone who should be brazen enough to take a walk on the overlords’ lands.
My first encounter with neofeudalism consisted of a gate plastered with about a dozen No Trespassing and Keep Out signs. It was April 1988, and my girlfriend and I were several days into a 500-mile walk across Montana. We started at my grandmother’s house in Pony and walked cross-country to Three Forks where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers come together to form the Missouri River. We followed railroad tracks downstream along the Missouri to Sixteen Mile Creek, planning to retrace the old railroad bed upstream east towards the Montana prairie. The railroad was clearly marked on our maps, but the railroad company went bankrupt in the 1970s and their easement was abandoned, allowing the land to revert to private ownership. That wasn’t a problem, but the No Trespassing signs were. After assessing our situation this far along, we concluded that we had no other alternative. April is still somewhat wintery in Montana, and Sixteen Mile was the only reasonable path to cut through the mountains to the prairies beyond, so over the gate we went.
At first the fiefdoms were few and far between, annoying, but not totally threatening. After all, Montana is a big place, far bigger than the boundaries of a few isolated fiefdoms. However, the superrich expanded their holdings, gobbling up family farms into ever-larger holdings, and new overlords joined them, buying more and more land. As aspiring Montana writer John Dracon pointed out, Europeans found the feudal system reprehensible, so it is ironic that feudalism is making a comeback in modern times. Acre-by-acre, property-by-property, we lost access, and with it, part of our identity. Montanans have always cherished a deep connection to nature. Yet, without the right to roam, children grow up on roads, lawns, and electronics. Disconnected from nature, people lose respect for the land, making them more likely to leave a trail of litter, graffiti, and vandalism. It isn’t the Montana way.
As I later discovered, the gate plastered with No Trespassing signs was the boundary to Turner’s Bar None Ranch. He owns three massive ranches within fifty miles of Pony, while Kennedy, James, and other megarich landowners have been steadily gobbling up the remaining private lands in between.
Sixteen Mile Creek was one of the most amazing places we encountered in our walk across Montana. The creek ran high and muddy, and it would have been difficult to ascend the narrow, winding canyon, except that the old abandoned railroad bed included wooden trestles over the water and multiple tunnels boring through the solid rock canyon walls. We saw 28 elk and 250 deer in a single day.
Although it is illegal to privatize wildlife in Montana, some of these enormous ranches encompass enough land to effectively privatize the wildlife within. For the low, low price of $14,000 – $15,000, private parties can hunt elk on Turner’s ranches. In our journey, we did cross paths with Turner’s land manager, but much to his credit, he simply waved us onward.
I’ve never been anti-Turner. After all, he has placed conservation easements on much of his land, protecting it in perpetuity from being subdivided and developed. That is good news for preserving wide-open vistas behind our unofficial slogan, “Big Sky Country.” Turner also raises bison, arguably helping to bolster the cause of an animal so iconic to our country that Congress named it our national mammal. In addition, Turner donates money to numerous causes, and he supports local community programs with small grants. A community grant from Turner provides modest support ($1,800/year) for my own work teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills to school kids.
Turner’s ranches were always far enough away that I wasn’t directly confronted with the loss of access myself. It wasn’t until other millionaires and billionaires started claiming the land in between that I really began to notice the squeeze.
Freedom to roam goes hand-in-hand with nurturing a sense of respect for the land and landowners. Those who remember owning the freedom to roam were not likely leaving gates open, cutting fences, littering, or vandalizing properties. Those behaviors are symptoms of bored and disconnected citizens, lacking an ethic of stewardship. Montanans can restore the right to roam, and with it, we can cultivate a renewed sense of stewardship and respect for the land and landowners. Without freedom to roam, Montanans are reduced to serfdom to the overlords.
“There has been class warfare for the last thirty years. It’s a handful of billionaires taking on the entire middle-class and working-class of this country. And the result is you now have in America the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on Earth and the worst inequality in America since 1928. How could anybody defend the top 400 richest people in this country owning more wealth than the bottom half of America, 150 million people?”
The saddest part about the rise of neofeudalism in Montana is that people who live here are reduced to a peasant class working in servitude to these out-of-state overlords. In the past, Montanans had the right to go anywhere, but now people are only allowed onto the overlords’ estates as servants to vacuum carpets and mow lawns.
Countless Montanans have prostituted themselves to the wealthy for a paycheck. Some are employed bulldozing roads deep into pristine landscapes, building mansions that are maintained and heated all year long, yet seldom occupied by the overlords. Others are employed building fences where none existed before, paid to install the No Trespassing signs that will keep themselves out as soon as the job is done. It seems like a good deal, getting paid by the filthy rich to mow a lawn or plow a driveway, but the price is that we are no longer a free people. We are increasingly indentured to overlords who use the people of Montana and then threaten to turn the police upon us if we violate their airspace by walking through woods that they themselves will likely never visit.
The serfdom that Montanans are subjected to isn’t limited to merely doing chores for the billionaires. One problem in dealing with the megarich is that they are willing to consume everyone’s time but their own. For example, a land swap proposal, such as Tony James’ bid to take control of public lands along the Jefferson River, commands time and energy of dozens of people, including common citizens who must clear their own schedules to deal with the issues.
Land trades are the billionaire’s game of Monopoly. Rather than get their own hands dirty, a landowner typically hires minions to do the dirty work to push a land swap proposal through the public scoping process, in this case enlisting the real estate services of American Lands, based in Missoula, Montana. Like anyone indentured to the megarich, the people at American Lands perceive servitude as opportunity. They claim to vet their clients carefully, working only for billionaires who are committed to conservation. They may purport to favor a collaborative process to seek out win-win solutions, but in order to serve the overlords, they are also willing to pit Montanans against Montanans, and if necessary, steamroll anyone who gets in the way.
A billionaire can potentially push a land swap deal with only one or two hired guns to move it forward, because public officials do much of the actual work, and taxpayers foot the bill. Public employees effectively work for the landowner, calculating land values, holding public hearings, and soliciting public comments. If a trade goes through, then the state or federal government may gain a few acres of land, ‘of equal or greater value,’ but there is no accounting for the cost of employee time to administer the land swap.
Above all, it is the common people, the peasant class, that are functionally reduced to servitude to the billionaire’s agenda in these land swap proposals, sometimes in favor, often opposed, and sometimes compelled to face off against each other. In order to protect their public lands, ordinary people must set their lives aside to attend meetings, get educated on the issues, and make informed public comments. Mounting a successful campaign can consume months of time and considerable expense for such things as babysitters, fuel, luncheon meals, and printing costs. Win or lose, nobody gets compensated for their time and expense in dealing with these issues. It is the billionaire’s game of real estate. They decide when they want to play, and in doing so, they dictate the agenda for affected citizens for months or years.
The irony is that billionaires play from afar, willing to consume everyone’s time but their own. That was evident at a public hearing on Mr. James’ land swap proposal. The meeting consumed the time of our state’s highest public officials, including the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and other state employees. Also attending were those of us who set aside our day to drive to the Capitol on icy roads to testify. In effect, every person in the room was there in servitude to the neofeudal overlord who didn’t bother to show up himself.
“This is what oligarchy looks like: Today, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. The top one-hundredth of 1 percent makes more than 40 percent of all campaign contributions. The billionaire class owns the political system and reaps the benefits from it.”
The problem in dealing with people with too much money is that they are accustomed to getting anything they want. On the surface the overlords may seem like genuinely nice people, benefactors who donate funds to support local communities and environmental causes. But money comes with a price, and the overlords do not hesitate to use it.
James Kennedy, for example, is a big time donor to Ducks Unlimited, greatly benefiting waterfowl and waterfowl hunters. Yet, he has also funded fifteen years of litigation against the state of Montana to limit public access to Ruby River where it crosses his estate. Kennedy is a media mogul, part of the Cox family that controls the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) plus numerous other daily newspapers, television stations, and dozens of radio stations. Kennedy has been described as “the most hated person in Montana,” and his crusade against stream access rights is constant fodder in Montana newspapers. Yet his media audience in Georgia has never heard about Kennedy’s doppelganger life in Montana, and the AJC has notably omitted major news stories on similar issues in their home state of Georgia. Sadly, when Montana author Don Thomas chronicled the long-running legal saga in Outside Bozeman magazine, Thomas was summarily fired from his job at Ducks Unlimited magazine. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, but that right doesn’t apparently include freedom to criticize the overlords.
In a similar vein, Tony James is Vice Chairman of Trout Unlimited’s Coldwater Conservation Fund, and not surprisingly, local Trout Unlimited chapters support his land swap proposal to take away Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.
Then there is the problem of money in politics. Tony James has deep connections to the Democratic Party, and he has hosted fundraisers in his home for President Obama and Hillary Clinton. James has aspirations of being chosen as Secretary of the Treasury. He also has deep ties to Montana Democrats, including Governor Bullock.
Bullock is one of five members of the Montana Land Board, the five highest elected officials in the state that ultimately decide “yes” or “no” on land exchange proposals. It is unclear whether or not the land swap proposal can get a fair trial with an influential billionaire pulling the strings.
Most alarming, James Kennedy, Charles Schwab, and the Koch brothers have all contributed big dollars to political campaigns to reshape the Montana Supreme Court in their favor. Kennedy donated $100,000 and Schwab $3o0,000 in so-called dark money towards a successful campaign to unseat justice Ed Sheehy. They bought a seat on Montana’s highest court with Laurie McKinnon, who has since sided with the billionaires on public access issues.
Sir John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Montana is a land and people conquered by money. If we want to be a free people again, we must begin by making a united stand against the overlords. As Bernie Sanders proclaimed during his 2016 campaign for President, “The greed of the billionaire class has got to end and we are going to end it for them.”
Who’s with me?
Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit.
An abridged version of this article was published in the Fall 2016 edition of Outside Bozeman magazine (pages 84-87).
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